KASAMA Vol. 18 No. 3 / July-August-September 2004 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

30 JUNE TO 3 JULY 2004

NGO Women Discuss Gains Made Over the Past 10 Years and Address Emerging Global Issues

The "consequences of ideological patriarchies in power" affecting women's lives - such as the unholy alliance of the state and religion and globalisation forces - were discussed on 01 July 2004, the second day of the Asia-Pacific NGO Forum in Mahidol University, Nakorn Pathom, Thailand.

THE FIRST plenary session for the day was "Celebrating Women's Gains, Confronting Women's Issues" which featured keynote speaker Patricia Licuanan from the Philippines who gave an overview of women's gains over the past ten years in relation to Beijing+10. Dr. Licuanan said it was at the First Women's World Conference in Mexico in 1975 that violence against women (VAW), discrimination against women, and issues of equality were raised to the level of the UN. In 1995, the UN initiated the Beijing conference which became known as the largest women's world conference. While many issues in the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) were contentious, the conference produced one of the most comprehensive international documents addressing women's issues. One critical process that allowed the women to bring forth their positions to Beijing was the collaborative and consultative action undertaken by the women's movement world-wide.

What have we gained over the years? According to Dr. Licuanan, almost all countries in the region now have a national machinery for women to facilitate the BPFA's implementation. Gender violence has been addressed through a wide range of interventions such as special police units to handle sex crimes and nearly all countries in the region have passed laws addressing violence against women or have amended old laws to strengthen the protection of women. Data on reproductive health is now collected; and there is increasing attention on HIV/AIDS in the region. The women's movement itself has transformed over the years, creating more links across boundaries, and now has long-term plans and strategies to address the uneven power relations between men and women. There is now better understanding of identity politics, where the many aspects of discrimination against women is recognised as having intersectionality with race, ethnicity, age, class, religion, language, sexual orientation, disability, immigrant or refugee status.

Licuanan, however, pointed that there still are growing and persistent issues such as poverty, globalisation, low wages for women, declining food security as agriculture shifts to export crops, reduced social services and basic education, and the heightened commodification or objectification of women in media. She capped her presentation stressing that while there is reason to celebrate, there are still many challenges ahead.

Dr. Heisoo Shin of Korea, Vice-Chair of the committee that oversees the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), enlarged the discussions. She reminded the group that one of the major achievements over the past 10 years has been the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try crimes against humanity.

Sex crimes such as systematic rape, forced pregnancy, forced sterilisation or abortion are considered crimes against humanity. Dr. Heisoo said CEDAW as an international women's rights treaty and the ICC are critical tools to enforce standards of women's rights in the participants' respective countries.

In the same session, Dr. Nurgul Djanaeva of Kyrgyztan said women's networks have increased capacities for creating a transnational women's movement among regional institutions. She said these alliances have the capacity to strengthen the linkages among special institutions, to take on regional monitoring activities, create and keep information flowing among each other and effect an intellectual and political climate for the involvement of academics, decision-makers and among leaders of women's groups.

On the other hand, Dr. Pawadee Tonguthai of Thailand brought forward the need to continue monitoring the Millennium Development Goals established by the UN to address poverty, gender disparity in education, promote gender equality and empower women, address maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, ensure environmental sustainability and to develop global partnerships for development.

Summing up the presentations, Dr. Vanessa Griffen from the Pacific said while the women's movement has made great strides through its networking, it also needs to confront its weaknesses; that while the BPFA needs to be implemented and monitored, it also needs to be critically assessed to determine what it has done to change the lives of individual women.

Plenary 2, entitled "Asian Women in Muslim Societies: Perspectives and Struggles" discussed the issue of religion and how governments are using it against women. It featured keynote speaker Farida Shaheed of Pakistan, with additional comments from Rashidah Shuib of Malaysia, Mahboubeh Abassgholizadeh of Iran, Muzda Muha of Indonesia and Sehnaz Kiymaz of Turkey.

In the plenary on Muslim women, Shaheed pointed to the issue of how countries around the world use religion as a political tool "to force people into accepting a narrow definition of self in which their multiple, non-antagonistic identities based on gender, citizenship, class, religion, ethnicity, etc. are reduced to one single identity imposed by those who have usurped the right to speak for the willing or unwilling 'members' of that group."

In Israel, religion is used to force traditional rituals and practices on all while a controversy on the use of the headscarf raged in France. Shaheed said it is not without reason that U.S. groups like Catholics for a Free Choice and Women Against Fundamentalism have been set up to address the growing Jewish, Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism in the U.K. Conservative religious forces reinforce each other through collaboration and confrontation: in 1994, the Catholic Vatican joined forces with conservative Muslim forces to oppose women's rights at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Conference in Cairo, Egypt. Women, she pointed out, always bear the brunt of identity politics as they face violence and little control over their choices. "In the Muslim contexts, the definitions of collective identities are increasingly hinged on the construction of a Muslim woman that is integral to the construction of 'Muslimness.'

The commentators from the different Islamic countries gave examples of the oppression women undergo "in the name of religion." Among these were the subjugation of sexuality, the assertion of political power over women by using a superficial dress code such as the veil, and the lack of voice of young Muslim women. Participants from countries whose governments were undergoing reform likewise expressed disappointment at their governments' refusal to include women in the reform process. Thus, at the open forum, a suggestion from the floor proposed to bring these issues to the UN, that women clearly deliver the message that religion should not be brought to the fore, since religion has been creeping in, if it hasn't already for some Islamic and predominantly Catholic countries. The Muslim women further warned about the secular movements or countries using such terms as "democracy" and "liberation from terror" and flagging these religious-based issues to further their hegemonic agenda. One recent - and perhaps most prominent - example they gave is the U.S. government's drive to "liberate" Iraq by going to war.

The media was also identified as pivotal in forging and legitimising identities, since conservative political-religious groups are effective in using the media and the media is being used by opposing forces as well to bash Muslims and perpetuate stereotypes.

The media and the new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are the "power tools" used by governments, the private business sector and oftentimes conservative forces to propagate their ideological patriarchies. These issues were raised in different media workshops/discussions in the afternoon, especially at the "Section J Revisited: New Feminist Perspectives on the Interlinkages of Media and ICTs with Economic Globalisation, Fundamentalisms and Militarism" conducted by Isis International Manila.

The workshop featured Piush Antony (IT for Change, India), Najma Sadeque (Shirkat Gah, Karachi, Pakistan), and Raijeli Nicole (Isis International Manila, Philippines) as speakers. Most people tend to ignore the connections of how the growing reach of corporate media monopolisation and the cultural influence of powerful countries become obviously noticeable until it nearly obliterates local culture in the process of "content dumping." Amidst these discourses is the noticeable absence of women in the Asia-Pacific region in decision-making positions within media and ICT structures or their total misrepresentation in media and ICT content, if they are mentioned at all. Thus, there was a call for women advocates to assert for more space in terms of lobbying the UN for more space for women in decision-making in the media and ICT. The participants were also encouraged to re-examine the limitation of the BPFA's Section J (critical area of concern regarding women and media) in light of these newly emerging issues concerning women.

The Foundation for Child Development likewise touched on these issues in the workshop entitled "Girls and Media in the Mekong Sub-Regions," while the Iranian NGO-Training Center focused on the experiences of "Women Media Practitioners" in continuing these discourses.